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What Starmer misses: the C-word

Summary:
One word is notably absent in Sir Keir Starmer’s recent essay – capitalism. Our most successful politicians have had something to say about this – whether it be Thatcher’s belief that capitalism needed low inflation and weak unions if it were to thrive, or Blair’s belief that governments and people needed to adapt to capitalist forces of globalization. Starmer, however, has no such analysis. For example, he notes that, “entering the 2020s, Britain faced stagnant wages, vast inequality and the slowest growth in living standards since the second world war.” But he attributes this solely to “Tory failure”. Which is dubious. It omits the fact that slower growth in output and productivity – and the symptom thereof, lower real interest rates – are global phenomena. Larry Summers didn’t (re-)

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One word is notably absent in Sir Keir Starmer’s recent essay – capitalism.

Our most successful politicians have had something to say about this – whether it be Thatcher’s belief that capitalism needed low inflation and weak unions if it were to thrive, or Blair’s belief that governments and people needed to adapt to capitalist forces of globalization. Starmer, however, has no such analysis.

For example, he notes that, “entering the 2020s, Britain faced stagnant wages, vast inequality and the slowest growth in living standards since the second world war.” But he attributes this solely to “Tory failure”. Which is dubious. It omits the fact that slower growth in output and productivity – and the symptom thereof, lower real interest rates – are global phenomena. Larry Summers didn’t (re-) coin the phrase “secular stagnation” to describe bad policy in a single country.

Of course, we can debate the causes of this: falling profit rates, an ageing population, lack of monetizable innovations; depressed animal spirits as a legacy of the financial crisis; and so on. But Starmer seems unaware there’s even a debate. Which leads to this:

Business is a force for good in society, providing jobs, prosperity and wealth. But business has been let down by a Tory government.

But is it less of a force for good than it used to be? Stagnation, job polarization and deprofessionalization all mean that capitalism has become less good at providing jobs and prosperity for many people. To some extent, it is the Tory government that has been let down by business, not just vice versa.

Failing to ask this question leads to this:

A Labour government would provide a level playing field, a skilled workforce and a modern infrastructure, from transport to public services.

This is the politics of Prince: partying like it’s 1999. But capitalism has changed since then. We now need more than just good infrastructure and rules of the game to stimulate growth. Starmer shows no awareness of this possibility. Starmer

Which brings us to another omission. Starmer decries the nationalism and other “identity-based politics in the Western world that has done immense damage to the progressive cause.” But he fails to ask: why has such politics gained traction only in recent years? In the 90s and early 00s the Tories’ obsession with Europe led them into electoral oblivion. So why has it become so effective recently?

The answer – as regular readers will be bored of hearing – lies in Ben Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. He shows that economic stagnation fuels illiberal nationalism, and sometimes worse. Populism is one more consequence of capitalist failure. If you don’t appreciate this, your critique of it is mere narcissistic moralizing: “why can’t people be reasonable like ME?” The cure for populism is economic growth. But if stagnation is due to capitalist failure as well as to Tory failure, this needs some kind of critique of capitalism – which Starmer lacks.

Here we run into another problem. Capitalism sets constraints upon what governments can do. These constraints operate in countless ways: lobbying; ownership of the media; offering ex-ministers well-paid jobs to incentivize them to behave whilst in government; controlling business confidence; emergently creating an ideology (pdf) which supports the existing order; and so on. These mechanisms mean that, as Pablo Torija Jimenez has shown, governments serve the interests of the 1%.

Good policies require much more than the goodwill and intellect of politicians. They require a material base, a particular set of class interests and balance of class power. We had this in the post-war era: a strong union movement and capitalist class that required a mass consumer market made full employment politically feasible. One challenge for social democratic politics is how to recreate such interests. In the absence of an analysis of capitalism, you cannot do this. Without it, though, your politics is just moralizing.

In lacking a critique of capitalism Starmer is actually more backward than capitalists themselves. One thing we’ve seen this year is the acquisition of companies such as Morrisons, Aggreko and Meggitt by private equity firms. This is happening in part because, as Michael Jensen famously pointed out, dispersed equity ownership is inappropriate for many firms – which is why we’ve seen a long-term decline in the numbers listed on stock markets.

But if capitalists themselves can ask the question of who should own assets, why shouldn’t politicians? It is quite possible that some forms of increased worker ownership will increase productivity, and so should be part of that suite of policies necessary to raise wages. This is not a terribly radical claim: it was part of the 1983 SDP manifesto. But it seems beyond Starmer. I fear his refusal to nationalize the big six energy companies is the product not of serious thought about the nature of ownership but rather an unthinking acceptance of the constraints set by capital.

Of course, I might be wrong here. Maybe capitalism is more dynamic than I believe and maybe it is less antagonistic to technocratic social democratic reforms. If you think I am wrong, though, you need to produce evidence and reasons. Which Starmer’s essay does not. It is one thing to be captured by capitalist interests. It is quite another not to even see the bars of your cage.

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